Articles

Friendly Fire on Capitol Hill

July 20, 2010

Describing the White House last week, Congressional Democrats used words like "ineptness," "neglected" and "disconcerting," and phrases like "isn't aggressive enough." President Barack Obama has only himself to blame for these protests.

Well, maybe more than just himself. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs may have spoken the truth when he admitted Democrats could lose the House. He forgot that White House staffers are expected to be advocates, not prognosticators, when their party faces electoral defeat. Mr. Gibbs need not lie, but he could have been discreet.

While an angry response to Mr. Gibbs from Hill Democrats was expected, several factors produced an unusually fierce reaction. First, Democrats in Congress feel underappreciated for having cast tough votes. True, they wanted to pass health care, the stimulus, record deficits, and cap and trade. They thought these would be political winners. But now they feel exposed for supporting unpopular policies they consider poorly explained and badly defended by the administration.

Then there is the White House's practice of outsourcing the drafting of major legislation to Democratic chairmen. This has made congressional Democrats more sensitive when Mr. Obama exerts himself, as he did with a threatened veto of a spending bill that trimmed his education priorities. One Democratic committee chairman (George Miller) affected by the veto threat complained, "there's no strategy there," while another (David Obey) fumed, "there's a lot I don't know about this administration."

Third, Hill Democrats were upset when the president brought up immigration reform without consulting them. Vulnerable Democrats know this issue may help Mr. Obama in the long run, but it jeopardizes them in this midterm. Obama aides stoked their ire further by boneheadedly conceding this point to reporters.

Then there is the record of Mr. Obama's short stint in the Senate. Congressional Democrats saw that he didn't apply himself to the business of legislating, nor lead any major battle. Instead, he was singularly focused on winning the presidency. They applaud him for winning, but they neither fear nor respect his legislative skills and now ask why he gets the credit while they receive the public blame.

Mr. Obama's arrogance, coolness and diffidence also make it difficult for him to nurture close friendships, personal trust and mutual respect with the poobahs on the Hill. And so House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the president's press secretary "politically inept" and condemned the "friendly fire" from the White House. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid snapped, "I do not work for Barack Obama, I work with him."

This problem is exacerbated by the poor or nonexistent ties between many of Mr. Obama's top aides and Democrats on the Hill. Some of his aides were Congressional staffers, but senior advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett are virtual unknowns to Congress. And while Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was the congressman who chaired the Democrats' campaign that reclaimed the House in 2006, he is not known for his warmth, empathy and easy working relationships.

Then there's a belief around Capitol Hill that the White House is already pointing the finger at them for the coming fall's losses. That's in keeping with a pattern: After all, Team Obama publicly trashed its gubernatorial candidate in Virginia last fall and its Massachusetts senatorial hopeful last winter, weeks before their elections.

Congressional Democrats also worry the president is insufficiently concerned about the November election. Maybe the White House believes Democrats have seats to give, that its agenda may be more achievable with fewer moderate Democrats, or that Mr. Obama can win re-election in 2012 more easily with a Republican Congress to blame.

Finally, congressional Democrats are frustrated the president doesn't do more to help them. The problem here is that he can't. His approval rating was 54% when his party was walloped in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts last fall. Now it's 47% in the RealClearPolitics average of recent polls. Mr. Obama's presence will hurt more than help in many swing races. Even his fund raising isn't going as well as expected. A recent presidential fund-raising event in Missouri had to discount tickets to fill otherwise empty chairs.

The White House's appearance of institutional and personal arrogance has left congressional Democrats divided and discontent going into the midterms. It weakens Democratic efforts not only this year, but well into the future. Having once fostered the impression that it's every Democrat for himself, the president will find it hard to undo the damage when his own name is on the ballot.

Mr. Obama is already learning from his own party the meaning of payback.

This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, July 21, 2010.

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